Do You Believe in Magic?

Here it is mid-July, and I am getting emails from students whose Extended Essays I’m sponsoring for the IB diploma. They’re at work on them this summer because they have to complete the 3500-4000-word essays during a senior year filled with other demanding assignments. Senioritis, a disease endemic to the United States, is deadly in any serious academic environment and therefore not an option, nor is leaving everything till the last minute. In the IB program, some last minutes are really terrifying and eventually back-breaking to students who have not found out how to manage their time and marshal their forces effectively. By contrast, students who have paced themselves like long-distance runners break the tape, not their backs. A good high-school education should help the students to find themselves in that position at the last minute.

For that is the only way that they will know how to succeed at any university worthy of the name. The alternative being bruited about is to water down university education so that badly prepared high school students will get Bs in spite of their deficiency. Talk about trout in the milk! High school should be the place where the ability to do sustained work and manage heavy workloads is developed. (And some of it might even start a little earlier, in middle school, to replace beanbags and bedsheets with history and courses like Jungle Gym Math with algebra or other high-school preparation.)

What can be done? A certain amount is in the hands of the teacher, who can give guidance and suggestions or structure the work to include formative assessments and milestones. But teachers who are overwhelmed with large numbers of students are in no position to offer significant mid-course corrections to those that drift. Very often they can barely finish marking the final submissions, which leaves them unable to intervene in the process of writing. If students’ classmates are as inexperienced as the students themselves, little good will come of peer editing: Can a peer be expected to exercise the kind of judgment that experience, knowledge, and understanding confer on a teacher?

And teachers cannot singlehandedly work against academic and social cultures that countenance excuse-making and magical thinking. If it is in the school’s and parents’ blood to tolerate senioritis, a teacher who does not have an extraordinary pedagogical charisma will be able to do little. If all but a few “responsible” adults in a school and at home are winking and nodding at Junior while he goofs off, the odd teacher who disapproves will injure only himself by doing so.

The school that tries to buck the prevailing culture in which it finds itself will fare no better. Imagine a school in the Land of Magical Thinking deciding that to combat senioritis, it would send second-semester transcripts to its seniors’ chosen colleges whether or not it was asked to do so. Not much imagination is needed to figure out the consequences. Nor would it help that some of the colleges would do nothing when presented with the transcript of a disastrous second semester.

Something large-scale is needed for such schools. Meanwhile, we must preserve expectations and standards of care and diligence in places that still have them.


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